Meeting Student Needs in an Online Course

When I taught my first online course in 2014, I, naively, thought my student population would consist of a particular type of student. I was teaching for Extended Education in their Online Business Education Program, so I knew that all of my students were already working full time jobs. However, that session, and every semester since, I’ve experienced having classes with a wide array of students.

Now, if we go and look at the CSU Student Success Dashboard, we can find out about our students at CSUCI in general and even down to the students in our own disciplines (by clicking on the Faculty Dashboard). From this dashboard, we know that, as of 2018, 64% of our student population identify as female, 54% are from an Underrepresented Minority Group (URM), 47% are Pell eligible, and 60% are first-generation college students.

What this meant for me in regards to teaching online is that I needed to start finding out about who my students were and earlier on in the semester. This is something I naturally did in a face-to-face class, but I needed to be able to understand my students and their needs in order to make sure that they could be successful in my online class.

Below, I list and link to resources that I’ve used in order to learn about my students, their responsibilities, their lives outside of the classroom, and their needs so that I could make the most effective online learning environment for them.

Learning Info Survey

One of the simplest activities I do is have students fill out a learner info survey as part of a “Start Here Module” that all students need to go through before beginning my online class. You can find an example in TLI’s Online Course Template, but one question in particular that I ask that always gives me wonderful insight is “Is there anything I need to know that may impact your success in this course?  This will remain confidential between you and me.” Through this question, students have let me know everything from their job and family responsibilities, to learning disabilities, to planned trips for the semester, to mental health concerns, and everything in between. I also ask about how they are feeling being in an online class — this, too, helps me prepare for the student population I am working with during that semester and to get a headstart on any challenges that may interfere with students learning, success, and engagement with the course.

The learner info survey can be embedded within Canvas as a quiz and takes students only a few short minutes to fill out. My questions change depending on the class level I’m teaching and the type of class (blended, online, face-to-face), but I create one for every class I teach, no matter the modality.

What I’ve learned from these learner info surveys is that student “need” can look very different. Those needs can be situational:  it can be the need to access content on a mobile device while commuting on public transit, it can be the need to have captioned videos to read while putting young children to bed, or it can be the financial need to work full-time while in school. Those needs can be personal: a veteran student with PTSD, a student with social anxiety, or another who took the class online because it was her only option.

Knowing our students better will help us engage them, make sure our learning objectives are met, and give them a successful educational experience.

Resources for Online Success

I also ask that my students complete Learning Online 101,  a Self-Paced Tutorial Course for students that prepares them for technical and academic success in online and blended courses. I make this mandatory for my first-year courses and offer extra credit in my upper division for completion.

Staggered Zoom Office Hours

For my online course, I like to hold a weekly office hour in Zoom where students can “drop-in” or schedule an appointment to meet with me. At the beginning of the semester, I send a survey to my students that include blocks of time that I am available and have them select the blocks that are open or free for them. This way, I’m able to stagger my office hours throughout the semester to, hopefully, be available during a time everyone can meet me at least a few times during the semester. I send an announcement through Canvas each week reminding students of that week’s office hour time. This way, I’m making myself accessible to students outside of the walls of our campus and have taken into account (as best I can) their schedules as well.

Explicit Information About Feedback

Near the beginning of the semester, I always send an announcement out to students where I explain the feedback that students will be getting from me in our online course. I sometimes do this via video or sometimes in writing, but either way, I let students know when they can expect feedback from me and what that feedback will look like. I generally split it up by assignments. I teach writing courses, so I discuss what they can expect from me on Discussion Boards, VoiceThreads, Pre-Writing Assignments, Drafts, and the Final Product. I also remind students to set up meetings with me at any point to discuss their writing and/or other work for the class. By being explicit about feedback, I’m proactively setting up students’ expectations and reminding them to also take responsibility and ownership for seeking out feedback when they need it as well.

There are also multiple ways to give feedback through Canvas! We can attach rubrics to assignments, leave voice/video comments in the Canvas SpeedGrader, and leave free-form written comments as well. Offering different types of feedback also leads into my next point about…

Universal Design for Learning

Another way I try to meet the needs of our students is by applying principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL asserts that creating inclusive education serves all students (if you are interested, there is a great, 3 minute introductory videos of the main principles of UDL by AHEAD). One way I apply UDL is through providing options for students as they work through content and do assignments and activities for my course. Luckily for us, Canvas has many built in options for offering our students choices:

  • Text or video options in Discussion Board: if I’m not assessing student writing, I give students the option of participating in Canvas Discussion Boards by writing in the text box or using the “upload/record media” button to leave a voice or video comment.
  • Captioning: making sure videos are captioned so that students can listen and watch or read.
  • Alternative Text Formats: depending on the file type, Canvas will automatically generate alternative formats of your files. You can find more information in the eGuide.
  • Collaboration: Discussion Boards, VoiceThread activities, Google Slides Presentations, collaborative annotations — we have so many tools to get students working with one another to foster a creative learning environment! We have a wonderful self-paced course on Canvas for instructors where you can learn everything you need to know about using these tools in Canvas.

There are also many pedagogical decisions we can make that offer students options:

  • Choice in research topic: This allows students to meet learning objectives, but while pursuing something that they are passionate about. For example, in an interdisciplinary writing course, a student proposed researching and writing about gang injunctions in his hometown through an interdisciplinary lens. I was able to see him excel and grasp ideas about interdisciplinarity, synthesis, and research once he was focused on a topic he cared about and directly impacted his community.
  • Presentation Audience: Depending on what I am trying to assess through presentations, I allow students to choose the audience. Their peers and other students at CSUCI? A group of professors? Professionals in their field? This not only gives them choice, but allows them to rhetorically think about how their presentation decisions will differ depending on their audience.
  • Scaffolding: allowing students practice in low-stakes activities (especially when using new online tools!) before assessing them is important. For example, I have students do an introductory activity on VoiceThread to build classroom community, but it gives them practice commenting and replying. Later, I’ll have them add a slide to a VoiceThread discussion with a real world example of a concept we are learning, which assesses their understanding and gives them practice adding slides. This, then, means students have had practice before I have them create group VoiceThread presentations to present research.
  • Be easily accessible: I’m clear and explicit about when and how students can reach me, when they can expect to hear back from me, and other resources they can reach out to when/if I am not available.
  • Clarify Assignments: I create videos where I screencast myself with the larger assignment prompts. This allows students to hear and see me explain the assignment prompt and address any frequently asked questions.

Whenever I’m thinking, writing about, or discussing online environments and student learning, it always comes back to this: good teaching. As instructors, we know we need to learn about our students in order to engage them and support them in their education. What I offer here is just one glimpse into some opportunities for meeting our unique students’ needs.

Our students made it onto to our campus and part of my goal as an instructor is to show them that they belong here and can do well here; that all of our students belong here.

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